Content Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: Bold Talk and Backpedaling

Empty buckets seldom burst into flames. –Robert Pondiscio, Literacy is Knowledge.

People who push curriculum as a solution are generally pushing content knowledge, and they’re pushing content knowledge as a means of improving reading comprehension. Most of these people are in some way associated with Core Knowledge, the primary organization pushing this approach. They aren’t pushing it for money. This is a cause.

Pondiscio’s piece goes to the same well as E. D. Hirsch, who founded the Core Knowledge Foundation to promote the cause of content knowledge in curriculum, Lisa Hansel, the CK Foundation’s current Pondiscio, and Daniel Willingham, who sits on the board of Core Knowledge.

Pondiscio even borrows the same baseball analogy that Hirsh has used for a decade or so, to illustrate the degree to which content knowledge affects reading comprehension. Many Americans are unfazed by “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game”, but might be confused by “I’ll see how the wicket is behaving and then decide who are the bowlers I’ll use in the last few overs.”

We can understand content if we have the background knowledge, Hirsh et. al. assure us, but will “struggle to make sense” of reading if we’re unfamiliar because, as Pondiscio asserts, “Prior knowledge is indispensable”.

Let’s take a look at what some people do when they read without requisite content knowledge. (you can see other examples from my early childhood here).

Let’s pick another sporting event—say, the Kentucky Derby, since I don’t pay much attention to it. I googled, saw a headline at Forbes: “Final Kentucky Derby Futures Wagering Pool Opens Today”.

I don’t watch horseracing, I don’t bet, I know about futures because they were a plot point in “Trading Places”, but until that google I had no idea that people could bet on who won the Derby now, in advance. And now I do.

I was not confused. I didn’t struggle, despite my lack of prior knowledge. I constructed knowledge.

But Pondiscio says that any text on horse-racing is a collapsing tower of wooden blocks, “with each block a vocabulary word or a piece of background knowledge”, to anyone unfamiliar with horseracing. I have too few blocks of knowledge.

Robert Pondiscio would no doubt point out that sure, I could figure out what that Kentucky Derby headline meant, because I knew what the Kentucky Derby was. True. I’ve known what the Kentucky Derby was ever since I was 9 or so. I didn’t get the information from my parents, or my privileged life (I grew up decidedly without privilege). I read through all the Highlight articles at the doctor’s office and picked up a Sports Illustrated out of desperation (the internet is a glorious place; I just found the article) and then did exactly what Pondiscio suggests is impossible—read, understood, and learned when before I knew nothing.

I first knew “derby” as a hat, probably from an Enid Blyton story. But I had recently learned from “The Love Bug” that a derby was also a race. What did racing have to do with hats? But now I learned that horse races could be derbies. Since horses were way older than cars, the car races must have gotten the “derby” idea from horses. Maybe jockies got hats when they won horse races. (I learned many years later, but before today, that I was wrong.) I not only built on my existing knowledge base, I learned that the Kentucky Derby was a yearly horse race almost a century old and the results this year were upsetting. No one expected this horse to win, which probably was why people were upset, because just like the bad guy had a bet with the Chinese guy in “The Love Bug”, people made bets on who won. The article also gave me the impression that horses from Venezuela don’t always win, and that lots of horse races had names.

Pondiscio gives another example of a passage requiring background knowledge: the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Oddly enough, I distinctly remember reading just that sort of passage many years ago back in the fifth or sixth grade, about New Amsterdam first being owned by the Dutch, then control going to the English. I knew about Holland from Hans Brinker, which I’d found in someone’s bookshelf, somewhere, when I was six or seven. So New York was first founded by the Dutch–maybe that’s why they called the dad Mynheer in Legend of Sleepy Hollow just like they did in Hans Brinker, because according to the cartoon I’d seen on Wonderful World of Disney, Sleepy Hollow took place in New York .And then the English took it over, so hey, York must be a place in England. So when done, I knew not only that the Dutch had once been in the New World, but that other countries traded colonies, and that while we all spoke English now, New York had once been Dutch.

I didn’t carefully build content knowledge. I just got used to making sense of chaos, grabbing onto whatever familiar roadmarks I saw, learning by a combination of inference and knowledge acquisition, through haphazard self-direction grabbing what limited information I could get from potboiler fiction, magazines, and limited libraries, after gobbling up all the information I could find in schoolbooks and “age-appropriate” reading material. And I learned everything without prior knowledge other than what I’d acquired through previous reading, TV and movies as came my way. I certainly didn’t ask my parents; by age six I acknowledged their expertise in a limited number of topics: cooking, sports, music, and airplanes. In most important topics, I considered them far less reliable than books, but did deem their opinions on current events useful. Yes. I was obnoxious.

My experiences are not unique. Not today, and certainly not in the past. For much of history, people couldn’t rely on information-rich environments and supportive parents to acquire information, so they turned to books. Using vocabulary and decoding. Adding to their existing knowledge base. Determinedly making sense of alien information, or filing it away under “to be confirmed later”.

But of course, say the content knowledge people pushing curriculum. And here comes the backpedal.

E. D. Hirsch on acquiring knowledge:

Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

That describes almost exactly what I did for much of my childhood. But this is the same Hirsch who says “Reading ability is very topic dependent. How well students perform on a reading test is highly dependent on their knowledge of the topics of the test passages.” Nonsense. I scored at the 99th percentile of every reading test available, and I often didn’t know anything about the topic of the test passage until I read it—and then I’d usually gleaned quite a bit.

Pondiscio slips in a backpedal in the same piece that he’s pushing content.

Reading more helps, yes, but not because we are “practicing” reading or improving our comprehension skills; rather, reading more is simply the most reliable means to acquire new knowledge and vocabulary.

This is the same Pondiscio who said a couple years ago:

What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.

Well, which is it? Do they think we learn by reading, or that we only learn by reading if we were fortunate enough to have parents who provided a knowledge-rich environment?

Take a look at the Core Knowledge promotional literature, and it’s all bold talk: not that more content knowledge aids comprehension, but that content knowledge is essential to comprehension.

I’ve likewise tweeted about this with Dan Willingham:

Me: Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that reading doesn’t enable knowledge acquisition.

Willingham: if you have *most* of the requisite knowledge you can and will fill in the rest. reading gets harder and harder. . . ..as your knowledge drops, and the likelihood that you’ll quit goes up.

Me: The higher the cog ability, the higher ability to infer, fill in blanks.

Willingham: sooo. . . hi i.q. might be better at inference. everyone infers, everyone is better w/ knowledge than w/out it. yes?

So Willingham acknowledges that IQ matters, but that as knowledge and IQ level drops, engagement is harder to maintain because inference is harder to achieve. No argument there, but contrast that with his bold talk here in this video, Teaching content is teaching reading, with the blanket statements “Comprehension requires prior knowledge”, and attempts to prove that “If you can read, you can learn anything” are truisms that ignore content knowledge. No equivocation, no caveats about IQ and inference.

So the pattern: Big claims, pooh-poohing of reading as a skill that in and of itself transfers knowledge. If challenged, they backpedal, admitting that reading enables content acquisition and pointing to statements of their own acknowledging the role reading plays in acquiring knowledge.

And then they go back to declaring content knowledge essential—not useful, not a means of aiding engagement, not important for the lower half of the ability spectrum. No. Essential. Can’t teach reading without it. All kids “deserve” the same content-rich curriculum that “children of privilege” get not from schools, but from their parents and that knowledge-drenched environment.

And of course, they aren’t wrong about the value of content knowledge. I acknowledge and agree with the surface logic of their argument: kids will probably read more readily, with more comprehension, if they have more background knowledge about the text. But as Daniel Willingham concedes, engagement is essential as well—arguably more so than content knowledge. And if you notice, the “reader’s workshop” that Pondiscio argues is “insufficient” for reading success focuses heavily on engagement:

A lesson might be “good readers stay involved in a story by predicting” or “good readers make a picture in their mind while they read.” ..Then the children are sent off to practice the skill independently or in small groups, choosing from various “high-interest” books at their individual, “just-right” reading level. [Schools often have posters saying] “Good readers visualize the story in their minds.” “Good readers ask questions.” “Good readers predict what will happen next.”

But Pondiscio doesn’t credit these attempts to create engagement, or even mention engagement’s link to reading comprehension. Yet surely, these teachers are simply trying to teach kids the value of engagement. I’m not convinced Pondiscio should be declaring content knowledge the more important.

Because while Core Knowledge and the content folks have lots of enthusiasm, they don’t really have lots of research on their product, as Core Knowledge representatives (q6) acknowledge. And what research I’ve found never offers any data on how black or Hispanic kids do.

Dan Willingham sure seemed to be citing research lately, in an article asking if we are underestimating our youngest learners, citing a recent study says that we can teach young children knowledge-rich topics like natural selection. He asks “whether we do students a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss content as ‘developmentally inappropriate,'” because look at what amazing things kids can learn with a good curriculum and confidence in their abilities!

Of course, a brief perusal of the study reveals that the student populations were over 70% white, with blacks and Hispanics less than 10% total. Raise your hand if you’re stunned that Willingham doesn’t mention this tiny little factoid. I wasn’t.

Notice in that study that a good number of kids didn’t learn what they were taught in the first place, and then a number of them forgot it quickly. Which raises a question I ask frequently on this blog: what if kids don’t remember what they’re taught? What if the information doesn’t make it to semantic memory (bottom third of essay). What evidence do the curriculum folks have that the kids will remember “content” if they are taught it in a particular sequence? (Note: this essay was too long to bring up Grant Wiggins’s takedown of E. D. Hirsch, but I strongly recommend it and hope to return to it again.)

Like reformers, curriculum folk are free to push the bold talk, because few people want to raise the obvious point: if content knowledge is essential, instead of helpful, to reading comprehension, then no one could ever have learned anything.

But contra Pondiscio, empty buckets do burst into flames. People do learn without “essential” content knowledge. Even people from less than privileged backgrounds.

Here’s the hard part, the part too many flinch from: Smart people can learn this way. All anyone has ever needed to acquire knowledge is the desire and the intellect. For much of history educated people had to be smart and interested.

In recent years, we’ve done a great job at extending the reach of education into the less smart and less interested. But the Great Unspoken Truth of all education policy and reform, be it progressive, critical pedagogy, “reform” or curricular, is that we don’t know how to educate the not-smart and not-interested.

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38 responses to “Content Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: Bold Talk and Backpedaling

  • Anon

    What do we do with a world that requires very smart and very interested people for the tasks that need to be done?

    When the majority (I hope that isn’t too much of an assumption) are average, and probably not suited for innovative work…what does this mean for us on a sociological level?

    How can we explain the ever increasing un and underemployment? The biological perspective leaves one feeling very cynical about the majority’s prospects.

    • Roger Sweeny

      The vast majority of work that needs to be done doesn’t require great smarts or creativity. But it really helps if you show up on time every day, listen to instructions and read directions, don’t goof off, etc. People differ in their ability to do those things.

      However, lots of people can, so the pay for those jobs often isn’t too good.

  • Terry

    How do I unsubscribe? I cannot seem to find a link to do that.
    Thanks

  • Tort

    Fill the pail AND light the fire. Lecture AND give projects. Teach AND get out of the way. Faith AND reason. In the end, all people have a place, and that place won’t be the same from one person to the next. But, I’ll take the kid who may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but busts his/her tail trying. Credo ut Intelligam.

  • Miss Friday

    Umm, wow. I don’t know really where to start with untangling this confused piece. You say that “All anyone has ever needed to acquire knowledge is the desire and the intellect.” Where does the intellect come from? Where does the desire come from? Those would be much more interesting topics to tackle than trying to refute the Core Knowledge people (No, I’m not one of them.) but all the while proving their point.

    Here’s an example of the confusion. “Well, which is it? Do they think we learn by reading, or that we only learn by reading if we were fortunate enough to have parents who provided a knowledge-rich environment?” You are trying to make a dichotomy where none exists. Because you can’t learn by reading unless you’ve got at least a little background knowledge. It doesn’t matter where it comes from (which the Core Knowledge people are quick to point out), or whether you understanding is fuzzy and half-remembered. Thus having attended a preschool with an environment full of knowledge and language will help you later down the road when most of your learning comes from books rather than experience.

    You proved this yourself in your sixth and seventh paragraphs when trying to refute Pondiscio’s arguments. You specifically referred to those snatches of half-remember knowledge gained from a myriad of sources. Sources many poor young people have no access to at all, but would love to have. (As evidenced by my 2nd grade music classes straying into ancient Roman history every time I bring up solfege.) You even mention your knowledge in part came from schoolbooks, which again supports Core Knowledge’s theory. It’s when you have no knowledge *at all* of the subject – no hints, clues, or guesses – that frustration sinks in and the desire to give up and declare school pointless becomes overwhelming.

    How about testing out what a lack of background knowledge feels like with an example drawn from a source I seriously doubt you have any familiarity with: An ancient first year university music theory textbook. Without the help (electronic or otherwise), explain the following paragraph:

    “As in the regular resolution, the secondary dominant and its chord of resolution are considered temporarily in the key of the secondary dominant for purposes of voice leading and doubling. Thus, in the example above*, V7 of VI to IV is identical with V7 to VI in the key of VI, here A minor, so the voice leading is carried out as in V7-VI, resulting in the doubling of A, a tonal degree in the key of VI, but a modal degree in the main key of C.”

    [*You do not need the example to understand the text]

    How would you react if *every* text you read sounded like this? All of them, for as back as you can remember? This is the situation that Core Knowledge wants to correct. Their curriculum is not needed everywhere, but it has the potential to do a lot of good in a lot of places. How about giving it a chance?

    • educationrealist

      I don’t think I was confused, but you are.

      “Because you can’t learn by reading unless you’ve got at least a little background knowledge.”

      Wrong. Because, as you somehow managed not to grasp, I grew up in the exact sort of environment that you all posit doesn’t allow for background knowledge. Working class, parents without a college degree, restricted access to books, no “enrichment”, etc.

      You seem to think that the paragraph you provide is somehow unique, as opposed to *exactly* what I’m talking about. That’s what my reading was like. *Every* text. All the time. That’s what I made sense of, built up knowledge from time and again. Which should have been clear, but perhaps you need more background knowledge.

      I’d try reading it again. Circle the parts you don’t understand. There are lots of them.

    • anonymousskimmer

      “As in the regular resolution, the secondary dominant and its chord of resolution are considered temporarily in the key of the secondary dominant for purposes of voice leading and doubling. Thus, in the example above*, V7 of VI to IV is identical with V7 to VI in the key of VI, here A minor, so the voice leading is carried out as in V7-VI, resulting in the doubling of A, a tonal degree in the key of VI, but a modal degree in the main key of C.”

      For the sake of further reading (which is what I’d do if I was interested in this and didn’t have a spouse with a music background who could possibly explain it to me).

      Resolution might refer to the ending of one of those parts in a song or piece of music that either ends the song or transitions to another part of the intro/exit of an instrument or voice. I’m going to assume that for the case of further interpretation of the article. I’m going to assume that from having listened to obviously multi-part songs (frequently pop) on the radio.

      Secondary dominant makes me think of backup vocals or the general use of a bass guitar or more remotely possible – whatever it is orchestras are talking about when they talk about “second viola” (whatever it means to be “second” in that respect). Especially in reference to the “voice leading and doubling”.

      And now the passage is likely talking about the actual sections in a piece of music (I’ve seen the movie Amadeus). V = voice? I = instrument? Or do they just refer to the actual section and sub-section numbers? I’ll assume the later is more likely correct given the later reference to “voice leading”. So then the two voices overlap temporarily during the transition and seem to merge at A minor with an undertone or some sort of transition to C. (A long time ago [pre-pubescent] I briefly took piano, but I still have no idea what “the key of X” means, or how you can tell – is it a baseline from which the singing starts, or to which the singing modulates around?)

      So, if I’m remotely correct, the passage is saying that the transition from one singer to another involves the second singer temporarily merging melody (or whatever it would be called) – singing in the same key, or combining to sing in what seems the same key until the transition is complete i.e. they aren’t clashing with each other. It’s not often you hear a pop song with two singers who transition between each other rather than sing counter to each other, so I don’t recall any immediate examples to check prior knowledge to see if this guess is likely correct. I’d normally assume it is until reading more of the book from which this passage was taken clarifies things (or doesn’t, sometimes it is years until you find out your interpretation was wrong).

      So there, you have an example of what a person with an intermittent intrinsic interest in esoteric knowledge will do with a very minor extrinsic prompt (and a challenge! – this is sometimes important, though can backfire almost randomly).

      • anonymousskimmer

        And what I felt doing that was kind of pleased with myself. Because what I interpreted holds up in its internal logic, even if it turns out to be hopelessly wrong.

        I have no conception that my emotional response to such passages will be the norm. But then again, my opposition to school reform is also to defend those like me, and those unlike me who experience similar frustrations, from the frustrations that an even more rigid curriculum will impose.

      • Apollo

        Part of what’s rather misleading about this example is that it doesn’t contain JUST unfamiliar (or familiar-but-used-differently) English words, but actual technical jargon and abbreviations.

        VI and V, as I infer, are Roman numerals referring to notes on the scale or chords or intervals–something like that. A 6th and a 5th? Reading further, or prior, in the book would no doubt shed some light on this.

        Not much literature is like this, though, and certainly nothing on the SAT or ACT.

  • anonymousskimmer

    “what if kids don’t remember what they’re taught? What if the information doesn’t make it to semantic memory (bottom third of essay). What evidence do the curriculum folks have that the kids will remember “content” if they are taught it in a particular sequence?”

    What ever happened to mid-day naps? The last one I had in school (other than the rare one in college) was kindergarten. Primary students are still growing, many of them variously sleep deprived, and it is now a known scientific fact that sleep is very important for memory formation – especially of what was learned just before the sleep takes place.

    Not only that, but in today’s world of various degrees of insomnia (some triggered by caffeine abuse) learning how to sleep when the opportunity is there is an important lesson people need to take into adulthood.

    From ACT.com on the Reading test: “Passages on topics in social studies, natural sciences, literary narrative (including prose fiction), and the humanities are included.”

    Since the ACT tests on prose fiction, and the Common Core deprecates prose fiction, will this harm future students’ Reading scores? Or will they be fine? If either, for what reasons (content mastery vs. genuine interest)? (This last question kept intentionally ambiguous so that the various interpretations can be read into it.)

    @Miss Friday: “Where does the desire come from? Those would be much more interesting topics to tackle than trying to refute the Core Knowledge people (No, I’m not one of them.) but all the while proving their point.”

    It’s called intrinsic motivation. There is a lot of research on this, though probably not enough (I know some people, often the valedictorians, are genuinely greatly influenced by extrinsic motivation). Intrinsic motivation is something that rigid, mandatory curriculums often stunt in students, and something good teachers try to salvage (including our host). (They’ll never completely succeed though – the forces against intrinsic motivation, and in favor of extrinsic motivation, are just too great.)

    Common core seems likely to exacerbate the issue, though with good teachers it is hypothetically possible a good CC implementation could nurture intrinsic motivation (though even there it would be quite the argument to say that it could do so better than a good pre-CC curriculum implementation, or a good and experienced groups of teachers without an externally mandated curricula).

    People such as Bill Gates seem to think that going even further away from the special environment he got in school (more rigidity and mandates, fewer *extra*curricular opportunities or curricular flexibility) will magically give students the opportunities he got. And I have absolutely no idea where they get this idea. A shared foundation of the curricular connections common core demands might be a good idea if intrinsic motivation could be maintained or nurtured along with it, but I don’t see this happening outside of those few students whose intrinsic motivation is their extrinsic rewards.

  • James Thompson

    The Neale Analysis of Reading provided two measures: Accuracy and Comprehension. Both could be said to require cultural knowledge, but typically Comprehension is more strongly related to intelligence than is mechanical reading accuracy, though that requires some intelligence. In a nutshell: learning to read requires instructiion, reading to learn requires intelligence

  • Roger Sweeny

    What I took from this essay was:

    1. Everyone needs a little background knowledge to understand and learn things.

    1a. However, it doesn’t need to be a lot. “Working class, parents without a college degree, restricted access to books, no “enrichment”, etc.” may be enough.

    2. How is that possible? Because people are different. The more interested a person is, the smarter a person is, and the more comfortable a person is with uncertainly, the less background knowledge is necessary.

    • educationrealist

      I’d disagree with 1. I’d say that background knowledge makes learning and understanding easier. Other than that, yes.

    • Hattie

      “The more interested a person is, the smarter a person is, and the more comfortable a person is with uncertainly, the less background knowledge is necessary.”

      This is what’s been bothering me about CK – it seems to have no idea what segment of the student population it’s meant to be aimed at but its cheerleaders seem to honestly believe that it’s for everyone. The lower ability students might benefit from something more concrete, basically lots of learning facts. But there’s no way that they could meet the standards, nor should they have to. The middle right/far right of the bell curve would probably find the standards attainable, but the methods would be irrelevant at best and actively annoying at worst. CK would be a lot better if the people behind it just made up their goddamn minds on a few things.

    • Roger Sweeny

      When I said, “Everyone needs a little background knowledge to understand and learn things,” I didn’t necessarily mean school knowledge. To take a perhaps ridiculous example, if a five-year-old was trying to figure out by himself how to read a book written in English, he would stand almost no chance of success if he had never heard English spoken or seen English written–if he had instead heard and spoken Chinese all his life.

      Everyone grows up with some background knowledge about some things.

  • Robert Pondiscio

    Tried to make my way through this thicket but lost my way after the first few thousand words and skimmed the rest. I can’t say I recognized my own words or ideas as through the lens of the writer’s self-regard and the sheer volume of words, but the principle I espouse is pretty simply stated: background knowledge helps. The more you have, the better (and it comes at you in many forms, from many places and at every waking moment). Lots of kids come to school with a whole lot less than others, and that puts them at a decided disadvantage.

    So the salient question is, “Do you want schools to try to build more or are you content to just shrug your shoulders?” I prefer the former. Your mileage may vary.

    Carry on. (I have no doubt you will)

    Cheers,
    R.

    • Hattie

      “Lots of kids come to school with a whole lot less than others, and that puts them at a decided disadvantage…

      “…So the salient question is, “Do you want schools to try to build more or are you content to just shrug your shoulders?” I prefer the former. Your mileage may vary.”

      Holy strawman, Batman! Do you have any evidence that the causation-correlation question comes out in your favour? That children are coming in with a gap – ie, that poor (usually how it’s phrased), often URM (that bit is heavily implied) people have some cultural gap? That said gap is avoidable? Also, how you phrased the two options is, to be frank, obnoxious.

    • educationrealist

      Robert,

      Your essay was 2670. Yet somehow I managed to get through that forest of words and respond with 2184. Pot to kettle, baby.

      But thanks so much for obliging me with an example of exactly what I was describing. In your essay, you said, “prior knowledge is indispensable.” Now you say, “Background knowledge helps.”

      Exhibit A: Backpedal.

  • susan

    It is unfortunate Abraham Lincoln did not attend a preschool with a content-rich curriculum. If he had, maybe he could have acquired sufficient background knowledge to engage with difficult texts.

  • EB

    I learned a lot on my own, and from my family’s various interests. But there were plenty of topics I didn’t have any background in when instruction on those topics began in school — and so I’m glad that although there was no such thing as Core Knowledge at the time (’50s and ’60’s) the curriculum was content-based and sequential and took us thru many of the topics and themes that Core Knowledge pushes.

    The kids in my school who did not have much access to these topics at home or at a library varied in terms of their mental firepower. Some turned out to be library hounds like EdRealist. Others were just normal kids but capable of developing an interest through good instruction. Some struggled and would have struggled with or without this good curriculum.

    To me, Core Curriculum and its variations offer less to the auto-didact than to the middle of the road kid. No question. And I agree with EdREalist that the kids who really struggle aren’t necessarily well-served by Core Knowledge, especially if it has to progress at the same rate for all kids.

    But there is a significant swath of students who don’t get content knowledge at home, are not highly efficient at self-instruction (or maybe just have other ways to spend their time, legitimate ways), and who will do better if they HAVE that common content than if they have the goop that is frequently served up in many K-8 schools today, where you will often hear things like “we make our own curriculum” or “teach the child, not the subject,” or “we’re teaching strategies, not content.”

    Core Knowledge will certainly have to self-correct if it is used in many schools with a lot of disadvantaged students, but that is not a reason to ditch the concept.

    • educationrealist

      Never said it was. But the minute you accept that CK has to self-correct, because it’s basically going to be used by kids who don’t have the cognitive skills to build this knowledge themselves, then you accept that CK is way the hell too hard for those kids.

      Besides, that way lies the argument that low ability kids need to be educated *differently*, which is what they are trying to avoid.

      You appear to think I’m attacking CK or the idea of background knowledge. I’m not, and say so specifically. What I’m saying is that their rhetoric is bold and assumes a lot that is simply untrue, and that when you point this out, they modulate down *considerably*–until next time.

  • anonymousskimmer

    Oh crap. In the previous responses I lost sight that Core Knowledge is a different beast than Common Core. And a far more hideous beast than that.

    Wikipedia:
    Based on a body of research in cognitive psychology and school systems operating worldwide, Core Knowledge posits that, in order to attain academic excellence, greater fairness, and higher literacy, early education curriculum should be solid, specific, shared, and sequenced. By teaching a body of specific, lasting knowledge in a way that allows children to succeed by gradually building on what they already know, the Core Knowledge mission is to provide all children, regardless of background, with the shared knowledge they need to be included in our national literate culture.”

    My god, have you they understanding of the psychology of your students?! Do they not understand that this ideology is a straight jacket to some of them? Do they have no conception of non-sequential learning preference?

    Fairness my ass. What “body of research in cognitive psychology” did they use? And how much of it was ignored? Did they dare compensate for the fact that a lot of said curricular research explicitly ignores the top and bottom 5%? And yet they think it can possibly apply to those groups? Do they understand that minorities (statistical, not URM) are statistically subsumed in research? Do they extract out those minority groups to determine whether their program works well for them? Of course they don’t, and it can hardly be fair to sacrifice some (who the founders of CK cannot identify with) for the good of some others (who the founders of CK can identify with).

    No. I don’t believe this is based on research. It’s an ideology that sought justification in research. Or they wouldn’t think that a shared culture of sequential knowledge is what everyone needs. They would recognize plurality, instead of squelching it.

  • anonymousskimmer

    More Wikipedia:
    “The community college students, most of them black, read with roughly the same fluency and comprehension as their UVA peers. But to Hirsch’s surprise, the students “became baffled when they had to read about Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. That passage was as incomprehensible to them as a Hegel essay on philosophy was to the U-Va. students.”

    The students’ puzzlement jolted Hirsch to an epiphany of sorts: Background knowledge, a common set of cultural facts and information mattered-not for the sake of knowing facts per se but because a shared intellectual landscape was all-important in empowering students to read and write richly.””

    What a jackass. “White man’s burden” should have died out among the intelligencia after Gandhi’s revolution at the latest, if not earlier following WWI.

    Did he ever have the humility to consider that “hey, they don’t get this thing that I understand as basic knowledge. I wonder what background knowledge they have that I don’t have; what things I would be perplexed about that they would read and write about with fluency?” No, of course not. Because he’s the all wise and knowledgable professor, and they’re the pieces of clay to be molded into his ideal.

    God complexes of this sort suck.

  • Roger Sweeny

    This seemed strangely pertinent to some of the issues raised by anonymousskimmer:

    http://isteve.blogspot.com/2014/03/fame-its-who-you-know.html

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    […] Content Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: Bold Talk and Backpedaling—I like this one mostly because I got it done. I’ve been mulling this one for ever. […]

  • Floccina

    I have always thought that in a bad area children would learn different things not less. So that is counter to those would argue that rich environments make people smarter. All reasonable environments (not locked in a closet) are complex.

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